A powerhouse tenor saxophonist who was an acid-jazz pioneer in the original Charlie Hunter Trio before hooking up with the Grateful Dead camp, Dave Ellis took two years off when his daughter Isabella was born -- but is now back in action. With a new CD, State of Mind (on Berkeley's prestigious Milestone label, produced by the dean of jazz producers, Orrin Keepnews), Ellis leads his new quintet tonight, Wednesday, at Yoshi's (8 and 10 p.m., 510 Embarcadero, Oakland, 510-238-9200).
Ellis arrived in Berkeley at age two, and was already playing music "when the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble came to my school when I was in the fifth grade. It was the band with pianist Benny Green and saxophonist Craig Handy. When I saw them I knew that music would be it. I never considered anything other than music until my daughter was born," he beams. "When I first saw my daughter's face, the whole purpose of my existence shifted." Music is still a driving force, but he has a new muse. He composed a song, "Isabella Blue," for his daughter, as well as a catchy ode to his wife, "Hi Lo," both of which are on the new CD.
"For me, music is spiritually necessary; it's transcendent," he says. "I'm a true American, and jazz is our music. I would have been Hitler's worst nightmare -- the American black Jew growing up in racially mixed Berkeley and playing jazz!" A star player in the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, Ellis graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 1992. He and a Berkeley High classmate then formed the original Charlie Hunter Trio, before Ellis went on to play key roles in bands led by Grateful Dead members -- Bob Weir's Ratdog, the Other Ones, and Phil Lesh and Friends, recording and playing in ten- to twenty-thousand-seat arenas. Since leaving Ratdog in 2000, Ellis and producer Keepnews have been crafting his return to jazz.
Ellis also plays Sunday, May 18, as part of the free outdoor Jazz on Fourth Street Festival, and at the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 21. Tonight's Yoshi's concert will be broadcast on KCSM 91.1 FM on June 22.
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